The history of the Auto Road began in the wheat fields of Canada. There were huge crops to be shipped out in winter, but there was no ice-free seaport available. So, a railroad line was built from Montreal to Portland in 1851. It passed through Gorham and opened up the east side of the White Mountains to the tourist trade.
In 1850, the railroad had paid for rebuilding the road from Gorham into Pinkham Notch. Further, the railroad financed the construction of the Glen Bridle Path to the summit of Mount Washington and started its own Alpine House Hotel in Gorham – one of the many fine hotelries of the Grand Age of Hotels.
It was a busy time. The first Glen House, at the foot of the Road, was completed in 1852; the same year that the first Summit House was built on Mount Washington. (There have been two other Summit Houses since.) The Tip Top House, still standing, was erected in 1853, and in that year, the New Hampshire State Legislature granted Gen. David O. Macomber of Middletown, Conn., the charter for the Mount Washington Road Company. The grand plan envisioned horse-drawn omnibuses on the Road, a massive hotel and observatory. Not all that came about, but work on the road began in the summer of 1854.
Building the Road was an enormous task. The nearest source of supplies was eight miles away, and all transportation was by horse, oxen or on the backs of men. Dynamite was unknown. Black powder was the explosive, and blasting holes were all drilled by hand. There was no machinery to handle the countless tons of rock and gravel that had to be moved. Even in Mount Washington’s bad weather, laborers worked 10-12 hours a day and lived in primitive shanties or tents.
Work progressed until the fall of 1856, when the halfway point was reached. Then money ran out, and the effort was halted. But, a new company, the present Mount Washington Summit Road Company, was formed in 1859. The next year, work resumed, and the first tolls were collected for passage to the Halfway House.
The gala opening of the Road to the summit took place on August 8, 1861, with many local dignitaries arriving at the summit in a Concord Coach. But, the honor of driving the first horse-drawn vehicle to the summit went to Col. Joseph Thompson, then proprietor of the Glen House. To be sure of beating out his friendly rival, Col. John Hitchcock, landlord of the Alpine House, Thompson drove his horse and carriage to the summit three weeks before the official opening. The last few yards were still so strewn with boulders that help was needed to keep the carriage upright, but he made it. And, he saw to it that a photographer was there.
After the Road was opened to the public, its business doubled every year until 1869. That year, the Cog Railway was completed, on the west side of the Mountain; and many found the relatively short trip and enclosed cars preferable to an all day journey on the Road in open mountain wagons. Road management responded by building the Stage Office at the summit to lure Cog passengers down to the Glen House from which they traveled to the railroad station by six-horse tally-ho, and took the train back to where they started in Crawford Notch.
Still, for years the Cog Railway carried many more passengers than the Road, and it took an unexpected new development to turn the tables–the motorcar. The very first motorized ascent was by Freelan O. Stanley, of Stanley Steamer fame, in 1899. There were more steam-powered ascents during the next three years, and then in 1902, the first two gasoline-powered cars reached the summit.
Clearly, the automobile age had begun on the Road, despite sometimes-strident criticism. In 1912, the first motorized stage appeared, a second-hand Thomas Flyer.
Since then, except when gasoline shortages intervened, the history has been one of steady growth: 3,100 private cars in 1935, 6,600 in 1955 and 12,800 in the Road’s 100th anniversary year, 1961. In recent years, more than 45,000 vehicles have driven the Auto Road each year.